You will be redirected back to your article in seconds
Back to IndieWire

Review: ‘Masters of Sex’ Season 3, Episode 9, ‘High Anxiety’: Placebo Effects

Review: 'Masters of Sex' Season 3, Episode 9, 'High Anxiety': Placebo Effects

PREVIOUSLY: Review: ‘Masters of Sex’ Season 3, Episode 8 ‘Surrogates’: Replacement Therapies

The Syllabus

As both the scent study and the surrogacy program confront
new hurdles, the latest episode of “Masters of Sex” examines the
power of suggestion. Can the belief that one or another treatment is the cure
for our ills result in an improved prognosis? At what point does positive
thinking cross over from the psychosomatic to the simply delusional? With the
verve of this season’s strongest episodes if not necessarily the focus,
“High Anxiety” finds Bill (Michael Sheen), Virginia (Lizzy Caplan)
and the others in their orbit eager — maybe desperate — to deceive
themselves, provided they reach the desired result.

The Powerful
Placebo

When Dr. Henry K. Beecher published
“The Powerful Placebo” in the Journal of the American Medical
Association in 1955, he framed his recommendations for their use in similar
terms, though in the context of “High Anxiety” his words have an air
of warning: “It does not matter in the least what the placebo is made of
or how much is used,” he wrote, “so long as it is not detected as a
placebo by the subject or the observer.” Of course, in “Masters of
Sex” the border between science and social life is exceedingly porous:
it’s hard to maintain methodological rigor when one is both observer and subject.

Thus Dan (Josh Charles) and Virginia’s decision to pursue
the potential placebo response to pheromones is as much a product of their
increasing intimacy as it is of scientific inquiry — a notion conveyed by the
terrific montage that splices together patients huffing test tubes with Dan and
Virginia getting it on after hours, directed by Dan Attias with a fierce
eroticism largely from recent episodes. From this muddle, the series once again
raises the question of where exactly their relationship is going. Is it
“pure animal magnetism,” as Virginia describes pheromones, or have
they succumbed to the notion that they are each other’s only diversion from
sham marriages and affairs masquerading as professional development? (It may be
a little of both: At the end of the episode, Dan proposes continuing the
relationship after the work comes to an end, but it’s still surprising to see
the normally level-headed Virginia try to shoehorn the iffy conclusions of the
placebo experiment into an excuse for the study to continue.)

In between, Virginia finds herself becoming a placebo, too
— for Bill, whom she placates with sex when he (super creepily) turns up in
her darkened living room with an apology that turns into a plea. “I can’t
think straight when we’re estranged like this — when we’re not together,”
he says, reaching for her hand. “We are together,” she replies.
“When are we ever not
together?”

The problem is that the ruse is unsustainable. As Dan and
Virginia’s own results demonstrate, attraction cannot simply be bottled, and
the uncomfortable tension between the clinic’s two namesakes eventually finds
expression in office politics. “I’m making lemonade out of lemons,
Bill,” Virginia says icily, seemingly referring to both her personal and
professional frustration with him: From their souring relationship, she’s saved
what she can and moved on. Placebos, as Beecher recognized, offer the chance to
control for external factors in medical research, but outside the lab there are
no such assurances. “Trying to control other people doesn’t work,
ever,” as Betty (Annaleigh Ashford) advises, during one of Bill’s
increasingly wild mood swings. “The only person you can control is
yourself.”

Family Medicine

For her part, Betty handles what Virginia calls (with a
well-deserved snarl) “the suffering male” with the usual aplomb,
though it’s not exactly clear why “Masters of Sex” has decided to
expend so much energy on the blended family she’s building with Helen (Sarah
Silverman) and Austin (Teddy Sears). Sure, the completely gratuitous sight of
Sears’ shapely rear end is pleasant enough, even if Jonathan Igla’s script
forces him to takes his designation as an “unfit” father a tad too literally. The real issue is
that his childish whining and Helen’s dopey naïveté leaves the incandescent
Ashford diminished by association: Why can’t the no-nonsense Betty, unafraid to
criticize her longtime employer, muster up the same tough love with Langham?
What the good doctor needs is not the placebo effect of another family, but to
have some sense slapped into him.

Extracurricular
Activities

Speaking of subplots that have outlived their usefulness,
Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald) and Paul (Ben Koldyke) fail to generate much heat
from the will-they-or-won’t-they rhythms of their narrative arc — possibly
because it’s obvious, from Libby’s reaction to the recently divorced football
mom practically salivating over Paul, that “won’t-they” isn’t really
on the table. First playing matchmaker, then spying enviously from the window,
and finally turning up unannounced in Paul’s kitchen, Libby’s begun to take on
an unfortunate air of “Fatal Attraction”; she’s nearly as creepy in
this episode as Bill. (I understand that this reading is complicated by the
fact that her marriage is so thoroughly screwed up, but my first note after she
drops by Paul’s with ballet tickets was, “She is one crazy bitch.”)
For a series whose female protagonist is so endlessly fascinating, always
shifting emotional gears to suit her changing circumstances, the writers’
inability to add flesh to Libby’s (admittedly perfect) bone structure is
maddening.  

Public Speaking

After all that’s transpired this season, then, the most
telling line of dialogue in “High Anxiety” is the one Bill and Libby
share, their mostly separate lives dovetailing over drinks in the episode’s
latter stages. It’s a moment that suggests, in its excruciating lack of
self-awareness, why their estrangement has not yet led to the dissolution of
their marriage. “It’s completely infuriating how some people are so — “
Libby says, before Bill breaks in to finish the sentence: “Treacherous.”

That the series’ two most treacherous characters, constantly
intruding on the lives of others to advance their own prerogatives, should see
themselves as victims is perhaps the truest glimpse of their relationship to
date, sanding down the external gleam of their “success” until all
that’s left is ragged, raw, unremitting failure. Both have become blind, by
some combination of nature and nurture, to the suffering of others — even, we
learn, their own son. For all his intelligence, Bill remains perplexed when
Johnny (Jaeden Lieberher) lashes out at Dennis (Blake Morgan Ferris), while
Libby seems to have absented herself from family life entirely. It is sadly
unsurprising to see Johnny absorb the only lesson his parents have taught him,
which is that an eye demands an eye, and a tooth, a tooth.

Head of the Class

When Virginia came alive in Las Vegas last week, after
Bill’s gorilla warfare in “Monkey
Business
,” it seemed she’d rediscovered her voice, and her uniformly
excellent scenes in tonight’s “Masters of Sex” — which
singlehandedly elevate the entire episode — make good on that promise in
spades. Yet it’s a silent moment, a mere expression, that most forcefully
conveys her confidence here. As Bill asks if she has an ulterior motive for
pursuing the placebo effect experiment with Dan, she cocks her head to one side
and smiles before responding, calmly clarifying that the anxiety of “High
Anxiety” is not her own. To which I say, “Welcome back.”

Grade: B+

READ MORE: How To Handle Your Husband Coming Out: A ‘Masters of Sex’ Advice Column For the Scully Family

This Article is related to: Television and tagged , ,